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Energy Future

Energy Frontier Research Center

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Frontiers in
Energy Research
July 2014

E Pluribus Unum: EFRCs' Role in Facilitating Collaboration for Grand Challenge Problems

Partnership is paramount to solving tough problems, but bringing all the pieces together takes some help

Ryan Stolley

Based on their annual survey, Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center examined the connections made between the scientists (dots) who work at the different institutions (colors) that make up the center. As the chart shows, the center has resulted in connections between the scientists at different institutions and in the same institute. These scientists are making connections that they might not have made otherwise.

The Center for Solar Fuels generated a sociogram depicting collaborations (publications) between principal investigators before (above) and after (below) the center’s creation. Each node represents an individual principal investigator. Those without connections are recent additions to the center.

The scientific landscape is continually expanding and branching outward. This is further intensified by substantial development of the tools and methods for scientific exploration. As such, the expertise of many researchers has become sharpened to a very fine point. In the face of grand scientific challenges such as next-generation energy technologies, the nature of collaboration needs to expand from a few projects between individuals into more interconnected structures so that we can benefit by combining our sharpened skills. To this end, a major goal of U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Basic Energy Sciences is to create and maintain Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) in which the strength of the team is greater than the sum of the parts.

At the Center for Solar Fuels (UNC), collaboration is a critical part in the development of dye-sensitized photoelectrosynthesis cells to generate high-energy fuels from carbon dioxide, water, and light. The center has adopted a modular approach to this problem, with teams focused on catalyst development, interfacial synthesis and dynamics, and materials science. Progress in each of these endeavors requires input and close communication between teams. "The real genius that comes out of all this is that we've brought people together who wouldn’t normally talk to each other," said Ralph House, who works at the center. "The EFRC really made a community happen. It brought people together."

The challenges to making these connections is defining the research question correctly, finding the right person with the skills to address this question, and then determining availability and resources.

The first step in developing a successful collaboration is establishing an important and specific problem to be solved. The problem must be specific yet, at the same time, broad enough to be separated into specific tasks. This is particularly important, as tasks should be sufficiently differentiated to decide which research interests, skills, and specialization are vital. By creating a skill tree, areas with similar equipment needs or closely tied topics can be combined to save time and resources. By focusing on the five grand challenges for our energy future, the call for EFRCs stoked the imagination of scientists from around the country around common themes. Every EFRC starts from a specific expertise or a few singular projects that fall under these general themes. This is then followed by gathering talent from the accompanying fields to understand details outside of the scope of the project for larger implementation of the original idea.

When asked how the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis was put together, its director, R. Morris Bullock, remarked, "We wanted to solve the problem of proton-coupled electron transfer by any means. The EFRC gave us the resources to do it."

Finding the right expert can make all the difference, as there might be someone who is working on the exact problem a team is having. While most scientists are up to speed on the current literature and know who to reach out to, it can be challenging to maintain long-distance relationships. Often, outstanding collaborations can be found at a researcher’s home institution.

"We have found collaborators at seminars on related topics, such as physical properties related to lignocellulose," said Laura Ullrich, who manages the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation. The center is focused on dramatically increasing fundamental knowledge of the physical structure of biopolymers in plant cell walls so formerly unusable plant material can be converted into chemical fuels. This center encompasses work from biologists, engineers, and chemists alike. Often sticking close to home can be your best option. "Inside our walls, it's a bit easier," Ullrich added. "We know each other and a lot of natural networking occurs."

Some collaborators on the EFRCs are not extensively published or working on high profile review panels. Young scientists, who are often students, are vital to collaboration and the success of the centers. "Every center has students that are off-the-charts motivated," said Dick Co, director of operations and outreach at the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center (ANSER). "We are very lucky to have many star students come through the center. Our students have a good grasp of the science, are articulate, and are able to tell a good story."

At the center, which focuses on discovering and fundamentally understanding how molecules, materials, and methods can dramatically improve the capture, use, and storage of sunlight for energy, the students are the ones who help the center overcome one of the greatest challenges to collaboration: follow through.

"Principal investigators are excited to collaborate," said Co. "They want to do bigger science, but everyone gets busy. Getting the students involved really solves it." At the center, the students provide the monthly updates and are given increasing levels of responsibility and, in some cases, small research budgets. Engaging the young researchers turns sparks into fires. In science, over and over, this is how boundaries are pushed and new ideas are tried."

This notoriety can be advantageous for early career scientists as it can help secure funding and increase publication rate, which can be incredibly important for scientists trying to establish themselves.

While a number of scientists would love to collaborate on any number of problems, bringing them together can be daunting because of time conflicts between independent projects, teaching, and other challenges. Aside from the individual pursuits of researchers, the institutions they are part of play a role in their availability in terms of resources and time commitments. Universities, national laboratories, and some private institutions all provide relative freedom in terms of research topics. However, the institutions also impose limits. Professors have general freedom to pursue research topics of their choice, but they can be limited by teaching and other university-related obligations. At national labs, the need for funding sources and conflicts of interest can limit researchers' availability. Industrial collaborators often have very good and specialized equipment, but are restricted by business interests.

Speaking of a recent collaboration with Light-Material Interaction in Energy Conversion, Scott Burroughs, Vice President of Technology at Semprius, Inc. said: "We each agreed to collaborate because each of us had something the other needed. Together, we were able to do that which neither of us would have been able to do independently."

Once collaborations are built, they must be maintained by creating an environment to let people talk to those in their field and in other fields. In addition to communication between teams at the UNC EFRC, multidisciplinary committees are set up that include center faculty and staff. One responsibility of the committees is to assess the scientific direction the center is taking and ensure that meetings are structured to maximize communication and collaboration between the different groups.

"Regularly taking a step back and discussing the big picture allows us to ask ourselves if the right people are talking to each other," said House. "A lot of bottlenecks can be overcome by getting the right people together in a room. The key is to nurture a culture of communication at all levels."

At ANSER, one tool is monthly meetings. Often at these meetings, the center's students will lead the meeting and provide updates on subtasks. The conversations continue at other meetings and informal conversations in the lab and hallway. These collaborations have led to serendipitous discussions and discoveries, including research into perovskite solar cells.

Collaboration has been a strong theme throughout the centers and will continue to be one in the coming years as new centers come online and established centers continue to solve the grand scientific challenges.

"In the end, science is all done by people," said Co. "By bringing together experts with different ideas, different experiences, and different viewpoints, we will solve the challenges before us."

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Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.